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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 10/08/02, 3pm
Leicester City
Getting on with it
By Ian Grant

"For now, there are no conclusions. For now, there's nothing. This team remains a blank canvas, such is its current lack of, well, anything much. Naturally, there's time to get it right, to find a way of making that midfield work, to look for a reliable method of creating chances, to sweep all the worries aside. Yes, there's time...."
- BSaD match report, Manchester City 3 Watford 0, 11/08/01

So, what's changed?

It's quite simple, really. For forty-five minutes, before we were comprehensively beaten after the interval, there was a great deal more than "nothing" about this Watford performance. On the contrary, it was assertive, determined, purposeful. Enormously encouraging. Rough around the edges, certainly; lacking a cutting edge, without a doubt...but very, very far removed from the black hole which swallowed our optimism at Maine Road.

It would be easy to pick it to pieces. Easy, and entirely counter-productive. Instead, I'd suggest that a two-nil defeat at Leicester can hardly be regarded as a disastrous result at any time of the season, least of all at this early stage. Mickey Adams' teams are never spectacular...and never easy to beat either. And although it may have seemed that all was lost as we despairingly went through our limited options in an attempt to get back into the game in the second half, it had previously been a tight, competitive match, in which we'd played an equal part. We might want to go back to the drawing board...but there's absolutely no need to erase everything previously written on it.

That sets the tone. For we have no alternative but to get on with it, to work upon the bad bits and build upon the good bits. And we can make a decent start by aiming to extend the first period of this match and reduce the second period, with the obvious target of managing a full ninety minutes of concentrated, organised getting-on-with-it. That might not set pulses racing, for we rarely looked like scoring here, but it would certainly put us in a safe, stable position from which to move onwards and upwards.

The contrast with last season is striking, already. Whatever else went wrong yesterday, we were far more comfortable with the high tempo set by Leicester, and far less afraid of being seen to sweat and toil. We pressed hard, retrieving possession more quickly than before and occasionally forcing errors from a slightly sloppy Foxes defence. Notably, and despite a great deal of complaint about the lack of aerial threat from a lightweight attack, an eager midfield pounced on rebounds and clearances rather than allowing them to escape, thus enabling us to press forward without always retaining possession particularly well. It didn't amount to much, perhaps. That doesn't mean that it can't amount to much, however.

And the defence, even if it rather disintegrated in the second half, was particularly impressive. For Leicester, and Summerbee in particular, spent much of the early exchanges slinging crosses into the penalty area...and yet, apart from a couple of headers for Brian Deane late on, they did so without creating any chances at all. It's been a while since that happened.

Two perfect examples. On one occasion, as yet another cross was headed away and the ball was caught up in a tangle of players on the edge of the penalty area, it briefly appeared that there might be a chance for a shot on goal. That is, until Sean Dyche bounded out and, as if it were a hand-grenade about to explode, sent the ball sailing back into the Leicester half to a great cheer from the away section. Earlier, Lloyd Doyley had got himself into a spot of bother on halfway and a threatening Leicester break had accelerated towards goal...only to be totally snuffed out by the numbers of midfielders and defenders who immediately manned their stations. Small things, but good things.

Indeed, you could say that we did the hardest part. We did it well too. By half-time, the Walkers Stadium - a very modern football venue (which is either good, bad or tedious, depending on your point of view...but it would certainly benefit from the purchase of a record that isn't "Stupid Mistake" by Gareth Gates) - was extremely quiet, the celebratory atmosphere flattened by a thoroughly solid, secure Watford performance. And you started to think that if we could just nick something from a set piece or a half-chance, we might well be able to hang on for a mighty, confidence-boosting win.

They'd been bright early on, our newly-Nationwide opponents. But nothing much happened, as the Foxes' fast, positive opening met with a forceful rebuff from the visitors. Deane looped a header over after Rogers' free kick from the right had deflected off Dominic Foley; Marshall sent a half-volley bouncing to Alec Chamberlain from twenty-five yards. But the Leicester advance was mostly halted before it reached the penalty area...and, although the unaccompanied ball frequently came closer to the Watford goal, it was sent packing with a minimum of fuss. Rogers struck a free kick towards the top corner and was foiled by the keeper's fingertips...but even that, the moment of greatest danger, was a save that you'd expect Chamberlain to make without too much difficulty.

At the other end, our attacks were stuttering, largely unconvincing affairs. We stuck at it, though, and the determination with which we retrieved possession and started again meant that we were able to build up some pressure at times, perhaps unexpectedly. Too often, the final ball eluded us...and yet we still created one fine chance, Micah Hyde collecting a sloppy pass and supplying Tommy Smith, who betrayed a lack of confidence by mis-controlling and then delaying until the opportunity was merely a distant memory. That was after sixteen minutes, shortly after massed appeals for a penalty when Allan Nielsen's free kick had apparently (utterly impossible to tell from such a distance) been cleared with the help of a hand. From the corner that resulted, Hyde floated a half-volley to Walker from twenty yards.

We could be pleased with ourselves. And we could be more pleased with ourselves, for not being distracted by being pleased with ourselves. If you see what I mean. Another barrage of Summerbee crosses was cleared, with Marcus Gayle especially impressive - a new role, perhaps, but one that's allowing him to grow in confidence and stature extremely rapidly. On thirty-six minutes, we let Deane slip just once, as he met a right wing cross and headed over from ten yards. And just before half-time, Chamberlain dropped down to his right to collect another Deane header, from Marshall's left-wing cross.

Neither outstanding nor memorable, perhaps. But, really, this was a fine statement of intent. As a clear, emphatic confirmation that we plan to do some work this season, it couldn't have been much better. If we could improve the service to the forwards, we might be onto something. The direction is right...and, for now, there is nothing more to be done than to work on it all, to make it happen.

Oh, and to avoid conceding two goals just after half-time. It doesn't help, when there's no realistic possibility of getting two goals in reply. Leicester improved after the re-start, moving the ball around with a greater urgency and much more movement...but we'll feel that we failed to respond in the same aggressive manner as before, leaving too many gaps and far too little resistance. Suddenly, Sean Dyche looked rather less invincible, Neil Cox lost his focus...and, ironically, only Marcus Gayle appeared to retain his concentration.

Within a couple of minutes, Izzet had been allowed to spin his way past Allan Nielsen on the right and continue into the box, pulling the ball back for Summerbee to pick out an unmarked Deane with an accurate cross. He's spent his whole career converting chances like that, and planted a header into the top corner. And we were done for, in all honesty. Suddenly, the crowd were roaring again, the Leicester side were pounding our defence, and the chances of a comeback seemed remote indeed.

We might've collapsed. Actually, we did collapse, pretty much...except for Alec Chamberlain, who stood defiant as everything else crumbled around him. The passing years just don't seem to make any difference, and the sheer athleticism of a couple of the saves was quite astonishing. After fifty-two minutes, Scowcroft struck a screamer from just outside the area, bringing a magnificent fingertip save from Chamberlain as the ball rose sharply. From the corner, Dickov's typically unsubtle attempt to drag the keeper, the ball and anything else within reach into the net led to a boiling over of the simmering bad temper as the two players struggled on the ground, before most of the remaining twenty joined them. Knowing the two characters involved, you'd suggest that one might be more innocent than the other. Two minutes later, Leicester were further ahead, as Neil Cox retreated from the ambling Scowcroft until he clipped a cross into Deane, who prodded it past Alec Chamberlain from close range. And we were gone.

The rest was a bit desperate. Really, only the most resolute pessimist would seek to draw too many conclusions from what happens when a team is two-nil down...but there's no doubt that the depth, or lack of, within our squad was instantly exposed. The choice of substitutes - three wide midfielders, an extremely young striker, and a goalkeeper - provided little to work with, and the result of Ray Lewington's tinkering was a bit of a mess. We can whine about it, if we like. We can blame Dominic Foley, if we like. But it won't change anything.

We weren't going to score, basically. When some neat approach work allowed Paul Robinson to cross from the left, finding only Allan Nielsen and Lloyd Doyley advancing into the box, it rather summed things up. Dominic Foley had disappeared entirely, taking Tommy Smith with him. We were going nowhere. But, to labour the point, it merely emphasised the need to prolong the first half performance, to grab the positives.

Thankfully, Alec Chamberlain prevented the one thing that might've been disastrous - two or three more goals, and a really brutal defeat. When Stewart ran onto a clearance from Walker, out-pacing a defence that suddenly looked heavy and cumbersome, the keeper reacted well to claw away his lifted shot. From the corner, he produced his finest save of the afternoon to deny Scowcroft from close range, instinctively hurling himself upwards and backwards and flinging out a hand to push the header over the bar. As it happened, the linesman had his flag raised. No matter - it was still quite, quite brilliant.

It was becoming painful. Neal Ardley arrived, a fine acquisition but clearly lacking match fitness. Anthony McNamee arrived, only receiving controlled possession twice and embarking on dizzying runs on the both occasions, finishing the second with a fine cross to the watching strikers. Jason Norville arrived, too late - and, you feel, too raw at this stage - to make a difference. Rogers curled a free kick slowly over the wall, giving Chamberlain enough time to reach up and push over; Scowcroft climbed above two defenders to meet Summerbee's free kick from the right and head against the inside of the post; Chamberlain charged from his line to block when Scowcroft was released into space on the right. Tommy Smith went on a darting run inside from the left that ended with a blocked shot...but, by that time, the away corner had more than a few gaps.

So, disappointment. But not despair. Here, we saw a Watford side that is prepared to work, that has plans for progress, that is much more than nothing. That falls apart a bit when it's beaten, that needs to improve in certain key areas. Not so bad, in other words.

We can't change our circumstances. We can change everything else, though.

Stick with it.